John McQuaid: Tasty

Tasty cover

John McQuaid
Scribner, January 2015. $26.00
ISBN: 978-1-4516-8500-8

McQuaid reports:

I became interested in the science of taste by way of the sheer frustration of feeding my two children. Born two years apart, they were both picky eaters. Yet their pickiness only barely overlapped. From an early age, my son loved hot peppers and extreme tastes; he’d cut up a lime, and eat it for refreshment. My daughter hated spiciness, preferring bland, comfort foods, such as rice, mashed potatoes, chicken, and mac and cheese.

John McQuaid

John McQuaid (Photo by Hannah McQuaid)

And so I wondered, why did these differences exist? Where did they come from? Since the children share both genes and an environment, stock explanations would not suffice. When I began looking into these questions, a whole world opened up. After some preliminary research, I put together a detailed book proposal, which my agent sold to Scribner.

Initially, the idea was to cover the topic taste-by-taste — sweet, sour, bitter, et al. — along with other senses involved in flavor, such as smell and touch. Pretty early on, I switched to a narrative approach. The book is a brief biography of flavor: It begins in the primordial ooze of the Cambrian explosion 500 million years ago, when life first began devouring other life, then covers the emergence of humanity, the taming of fire and of fermentation, and the arrival of civilization and history. It concludes by looking at the modern food system and where — since they never stopped evolving — our tastes are headed.

This structure allowed me to tell the story of the human flavor sense, which differs from that of other mammals in crucial ways, while exploring evolution, genetics, molecular biology, neuroscience, and psychology.

I read hundreds of scientific papers to get a sense of the state of the research, and interviewed dozens of scientists. I also did fun stuff: I took my daughter to visit to a cheese maker, and my son to visit the guy growing the hottest chili peppers in the world. The biggest challenge was fitting all these diverse elements together in an engaging way while not dumbing down the content, or oversimplifying the science.

Contact info:

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Tell your fellow NASW members how you came up with the idea for your book, developed a proposal, found an agent and publisher, funded and conducted research, and put the book together. Include what you wish you had known before you started this project, or had done differently.


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March 18, 2015

Advance Copy

The path from idea to book may take myriad routes. The Advance Copy column, started in 2000 by NASW volunteer book editor Lynne Lamberg, features NASW authors telling the stories behind their books. Authors are asked to report how they got their idea, honed it into a proposal, found an agent and a publisher, funded and conducted their research, and organized their writing process. They also are asked to share what they wish they’d known when they started or would do differently next time, and what advice they can offer aspiring authors. Lamberg edits the authors’ answers to produce the Advance Copy reports.

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